Like many of you, when we left for our big cruising adventure this past August, we debated the need for medical insurance while traveling through the U.S.
We finally opted for coverage with BCAA and their underwriter Tugo, a Richmond, BC based company. We’d often bought travel insurance with BCAA while on trips in the U.S. and appreciated the somewhat affordable premiums and the ease of buying insurance, since we’d been BCAA members for close to 20 years.
Insurance is a weird thing, you’re paying for something you hope you won’t need. In our case, the unlikely event happened pretty early on.
We had spent a few weeks around San Francisco, after a 6 day downwind sail and some motoring trip from Neah Bay. From San Francisco, we had started our way down the coast, with stops at Moss Landing, Monterey, and Pebble Beach.
After a few days holed up in Carmel, waiting for weather to take us to the Channel Islands, we finally got going. There is one last point of land one has to clear before getting to southern California: Point Conception, and like many headlands sticking out into the Pacific, it can get a bit nasty given high winds and swell.
So we made it to San Miguel, the northern most Channel Island. Rugged, steep cliffs surround Cuyler Harbour. We thought the steep cliffs on the northwest side of the bay would be perfect protection from the general NW wind flow. We were somewhat wrong. The winds do flow from the NW, but they sneakily ride over the cliff and tumble down over the anchorage. They do that on the clock, from about 1000h to 0200h. So not exactly your sedate anchorage, with winds blowing from 20 to 30 kts.
At any rate, there we were and we thought, let’s at least get ashore and hike the trails around the Island. We had been buddy boating with our friends Karoline and Eric on Blackdragon since Neah Bay, and the four of us went ashore and made our way up a steep ravine, following a trail that led to the Park Ranger station. There, with a green class of 25 students on a high school trip from Santa Barbara Middle School, we watched a short documentary about the early inhabitants of the Island, a family of four that lived a secluded life on San Miguel until the mid 70s. And we listened to the Park Ranger tell us about the 200 plus foxes that live on the Island. San Miguel is also known as the “Galapagos of the North” for its elephant seals rookery, one of the largest in the world.
We started on our way down the trail that would take us back to the beach and our boats. The trail, while well maintained, is fairly steep in some areas and very narrow at times. It essentially follows the contours of the south side of a steep ravine, that drops about 200 feet at some points.
Halfway down the trail, I was walking ahead when I heard my wife Helen yell out. I turned to see her laying across the trail, with her legs hanging over the edge of the trail, trying not to slide down the ravine. I ran up to help ease her back onto the trail. Right away she told me she thought she’d broken her ankle. I thought that couldn’t be. She just fell on her bum… But sure enough, feeling her right ankle, I could feel a piece of bone moving right under the skin.
By then Karoline and Eric had caught up with us. While they stayed with Helen, I ran up to the Ranger’s station to get help.
This is where this story takes a neat turn. Remember that class of kids that were at the Ranger’s station with us? Well, luckily for Helen, one of the parents accompanying the kids, Kara, was an EMT. And one of the teachers, Brian, was a very experienced mountaineer/hiker. They were carrying an emergency pouch with a splint kit. The Ranger’s station also had a backboard that EMTs often use to immobilize victims of accidents.
Once we were with Helen again, it was really just a matter of sliding down the trail, while she sat on the backboard, leg propped up under a backpack, neatly splinted. The teacher / mountaineer guided the board down from the front, while I held some of the weight back with straps. It took roughly an hour to get back to the beach.
Once on the beach, eight of us essentially carried Helen on the backboard all the way to an awaiting 15 foot Zodiac, that had been used by the school group to ferry them ashore from their ship.
By then, the winds were well established and the dinghy ride back ahead of the Zodiac was very wet. Once I was on board with a few others, we set up a halyard and harness to raise Helen back on board. The guys in the Zodiac only had to gently hold Helen from swinging about as we hoisted her on deck.
Once all the effusive “thank you’s” to all who helped were done with, I got in touch with the USCG. They were helpful in setting us up with Santa Barbara Harbor, where we were intending to sail the next morning. It was definitely too windy for me to sail our 47 ft Discovery single-handed. And we also had to take into account that a heeling boat might be very uncomfortable (and painful) for Helen, with her leg propped up in the cockpit and immobilized with cushions and towels.
As luck would have it, again, one of the other boats at anchor in the Bay had heard my calls to the USCG. They hailed us on the radio. The woman at the other end was a registered nurse and was offering to come over and see if she could help make Helen more comfortable. Helen said yes even before the lady, Kristie, was done offering her services. Call it cruisers’ solidarity, but what an amazing coincidence this turned out to be.
So while her husband John and I were chatting below, Kristie made sure Helen’s ankle was properly iced up, gave her a quick briefing on how to use pain meds we had on board, (thanks to our Fleet group) and basically got to know each other.
The next day we were in Santa Barbara, after an early start in flat-calm conditions, motoring the thirty or so nautical miles. An ambulance was waiting at the harbor dock and took Helen to Cottage Hospital, where in late afternoon, she was operated on by Dr Eric Shepherd.
Let me back track a bit here and mention that before the operation was allowed to proceed (this is the U.S. after all), we had to provide proof of insurance. We did. And again this is where luck steps in again. Our insurance policy was 2 days from expiry when Helen’s accident occurred. By the time we were in hospital; that means there was one day of coverage left on our policy!
At first, the underwriter, on a call with the hospital was refusing the operation to be performed in the States and wanted to fly Helen back to Canada for the procedure. Again, under normal circumstances, this might sound like a good idea, except we don’t have a home anymore in Canada. To be clear, we’ve lived on Shamata now for 5 years. So going “home” to get the operation done did not make sense. The surgeon also pleaded Helen’s case by saying that the extent of the fracture, which the x-ray had revealed she had 3 breaks in her ankle, made it urgent to operate before swelling became too extensive to proceed. This would undoubtedly occur if she had to travel back to Canada, delaying the procedure and risking infection and other complications. Finally the underwriter relented, and the procedure went ahead.
You would think that by then, the dealings with the underwriter would just follow the simple course of the hospital sending them a bill. Not so.
Turns out the surgeon’s office did not want to deal with “outside of the U.S.” insurance companies! Something about them having been stiffed one too many times. So, in order for Helen to be examined by her surgeon 12 days or so after the procedure, we had to pay the doctor’s fee, some $4000 U.S., or he could not see her.
The only way out of this was for us to get assurance from the underwriter that if we provided them with a series of official documents describing in minute detail the actual procedure performed by the surgeon, with original receipts, they would reimburse us.
Have you ever played the telephone game where one person whispers a message to you and you in turn whisper that message to someone else, and not surprisingly the message gets distorted beyond recognition in no time. Well, that pretty much sums up our dealings between the doctor’s office and the underwriter trying to make sure we were gathering the right paperwork from a reluctant office manager and a sometimes stubborn underwriter rep. It took two days and untold number of phone calls to sort it out.
After a few days in Santa Barbara, we decided to start heading south anyway, not wanting this accident to throw the cruising plans too much out of kilter. We were again very lucky to be able to use reciprocal privileges with clubs in Oxnard, Long Beach, Dana Point and finally San Diego. From here, we drove back to Santa Barbara for Helen’s post op exam, which showed she was healing very well, thankfully.
The big learning for us in all of this is that one should inquire about the underwriter that is behind the insurance product you are buying. We found out to our dismay that underwriters will do pretty much anything to get out of paying. How naive of us to think it would be otherwise.
It will be an eight-week recovery before Helen can bear full weight on the ankle. At the time of writing this article, we are at Baja Naval in Ensenada. Helen is almost four weeks into recovery and she has settled quite nicely in the “routine calls” for her husband to: “fetch me this please, and get me that please!” That part did not show up in the fine print!